“This could go really badly,” read the caption of my Snapchat story. I was documenting my first solo camping trip. I was ill-prepared, but the decision had been made and the wheels were in motion before I knew how to stop myself. As an extrovert who loved to be around friends, I had never been big on solo travel. But a recent cross-country move from New York to L.A. had forced me into taking a road trip by myself, and it had changed my perspective on moving around in this big beautiful world on my own. Rolling into a remote town in Middle America, posting up at the bar, and staying in a strange motel thrilled me to no end. (It also gave my poor worrisome mother massive and constant anxiety on the whereabouts of her wandering daughter.) So when I couldn’t find any takers to ride shotgun on a last-minute road trip up the California coastline, I decided to go by myself. As if to up the ante, I also thought it would be an appropriate time to test my hand at camping, which would be way cheaper than a hotel (+1 for finding ways to travel on a budget!) and a lot more adventurous. So what if I didn’t own a tent or sleeping bag? These were things I could buy on the road. Camping was the ultimate test in self-reliance — proper planning was not going to deter me from the challenge. I packed a book, two rolls of toilet paper, a bottle of red wine, and an inflatable shark raft (in case of an emergency?) into my overnight bag, pressed the “Start” button on my Prius, and headed for the coast. I found outdoor-outfitter salvation about two hours north of L.A. In case you were wondering, you, too, can have your very own and very literal pop-up hotel experience for under $100: a sleeping bag (I splurged on the version with the “flannel-printed” lining), a tent for two (just in case I had any guests), a flashlight, a cooler, some s’mores ingredients, a couple of pre-packaged salads, and a bottle of lighter fluid. Stop and think about the economics of that: $100 barely gets you a shared room in an Airbnb — but this setup can be repeated every weekend at minimal incremental cost. And assuming you choose your campsite correctly, it all comes with a rustic fireplace and a view!
By this time, I had done some googling and discovered a campsite just south of Big Sur that had strong reviews for both panoramic vistas and safety — and my course was set. I arrived to the site a couple hours before sunset and decided to enjoy the remaining light with a hike. At this point, I was really feeling myself: I had successfully navigated up the coast, acquired the necessary means of survival, convinced my distraught mother that I was going to live through the night, scaled a cliff (okay, I took a trail to the top of a really big hill), and was watching the sun sink low on the horizon before dipping under the Pacific for the evening. With the sunset, the world opened up before me once again with a sudden realization: If I ever wanted to go anywhere, I could. I didn’t need to find a friend with the same travel schedule. I didn’t need to get an expensive hotel. A tent, a sleeping bag, and some firewood would get me access to the most incredible landscapes across this country. When I returned, it was dusk and I had noticed a large and luxurious RV had taken up space near my campsite; two older couples were enjoying a roaring fire from their folding chairs along with a full picnic-table setup — tablecloth and everything. Feeling a tinge of jealousy over their creature comforts, but somewhat confident in my minimalist setup, I opened my wine — which I drank straight from the bottle, because who needs cups? — pulled my tent from its packaging, and set to work following the numbered instructions. I felt as though I almost looked like I knew what I was doing. But the stares coming from the opposite campsite told a different story. When one of the gentlemen wandered over to my site and asked if I wanted a hand, I didn’t hesitate to accept the free labor. When he saw my sad pre-packaged salad and asked if I wanted to join them for boozy ice cream, I knew that my desire for self-reliance was shifting rapidly towards understanding how to accept signs from the universe that maybe you just might need some help. I learned that my neighbors were from Southern California and had been taking their RV across the country. This stretch below Big Sur was one of their favorite spots. I told them that it was quickly becoming mine. They were fascinated that I would go camping by myself, particularly as a novice, and amused at my lack of preparation. I was fascinated that it took me 30 years to discover how to drizzle Baileys over ice cream. Our exchange of stories, laughter, and calories lasted late into the evening.
As the temperature dropped, my new friends retired for the night and I wandered back to my campsite. Zipping myself up into my sleeping bag, I realized the advertised flannel print was more print than actual flannel. Happy that I at least had enough foresight to bring a California cabernet to keep me warm, I fell asleep to the yipping of coyotes in the distance. When I awoke with the sunrise, slightly hungover and slightly frozen, I surveyed my surroundings: extra sweater as pillow, empty bottle of wine, and a sad breakfast of champions: a wilted, pre-packaged salad. But I had survived my first night of camping alone! I had driven over 230 miles, watched the sun set over the Pacific, and fallen asleep warm and fuzzy despite the elements. This was everything I had wanted. A few moments later, the smell of sizzling bacon and something sweet drifted through the air from my new friends’ RV. I smiled, grateful my solo adventure was taken slightly off-course. Self-reliance could wait for a day when I was more prepared. For now, I was more interested in attacking a giant stack of pancakes.